Thursday, November 23, 2017

When Black Friday Comes

On today's doorstep, more evidence that I am a stranger in my own culture:

The Black Friday thing crept up while I wasn't looking, though of course it's hard to ignore every year. I do my best to pretend it isn't happening, but this pile of paper is a weighty reminder. It's literally about five pounds.

Meanwhile, the Star Tribune ran a New York Times fact-check article on page 2, reminding readers that the "first Thanksgiving" wasn't what our culture seems to think it was. I'm sure I've heard all or most of this before, but the article reminded me.

First, the area that became Plymouth, Massachusetts, wasn't a wilderness when the English settlers arrived in 1620. It was

already a village with clear fields and a spring when the Pilgrims found it. "A lovely place to settle...Why was it available? Because every single native person who had been living there was a corpse." Plagues had wiped them out.
And then there's what we were taught about the English settlers and their religion:
It’s been taught that the Pilgrims came because they were seeking religious freedom, but that’s not entirely true.... The Pilgrims had religious freedom in Holland, where they first arrived in the early 17th century. Like those who settled Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, the Pilgrims came to North America to make money....

“They were also coming here in order to establish a religious theocracy, which they did,” he said. “That’s not exactly the same as coming here for religious freedom. It’s kind of coming here against religious freedom.”

Also, the Pilgrims never called themselves Pilgrims. They were separatists.... The term Pilgrims didn’t surface until around 1880.
The feast — with both local native people and settlers in attendance — did happen in 1621, but no one knows who initiated it or who invited who. Harvest feasts were a common practice, of course, so it's really nothing particularly noteworthy.

Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, not long after he'd had 38 Dakota men hung by the neck until death, here at Fort Snelling. The largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Despite all of this, I like having a national holiday based on food, the harvest, and thankfulness, with no necessary religious basis. Everything else that many of my fellow citizens associate with it (from "Pilgrims" to shopping), I can live without.


Some earlier thoughts on the founders of Plymouth Colony and Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates (2008).

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Ta-Nehisi Coates Speaking of Not-Faith

The public radio show On Being is created in Minnesota. I don't usually listen to it, since, as you may have guessed, I'm not exactly religious. If you don't know the show, it's helpful to know it used to be called Speaking of Faith.

But host Krista Tippett recently had a conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates that's well worth listening to (or reading as a transcript, if you want to spend less time on it).

They discuss the usual calls for Coates to "find hope" in our world (which he refuses to do), the nature of black atheism, and a lot more. So much truth in one place.

I recommend it.


Past posts about TNC:

Not to mention the many other times I've cited him in my Twitter round-ups and too-many-tabs posts.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Devastation Alert

You may not appreciate just how many hell-in-a-handbasket topics I choose not to cover here, often because I've mentioned them on my Twitter account and feel too overwhelmed to keep up with them all. Or maybe you do realize.

Today, there are so many I have to list them, and I'm sure I'll forget something.

Meteorologist and climate writer Eric Holthaus has a new piece on Grist titled Ice Apocalypse: Rapid collapse of Anarctic glaciers could flood coastal cities by the end of this century. He put it this way on Twitter: "I spoke with more than a dozen polar scientists. Nearly all of them had that edge in their voice—they knew, in their core, that this work was critically important and they wanted the world to know." Children being born today will (most likely) still be alive at the end of this century; this is not a remote time.

Trump's Federal Communications Commission is killing net neutrality, which means at a minimum that people's already-too-expensive internet access will become more expensive. In worse scenarios, our access to some kinds of content will be throttled or even eliminated.

Trump's nominee to lead the 2020 census is the author of a book called Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America. The administration has already demonstrated it is coming for the very idea of democracy, and this is more evidence. (Written up on Politico.)

U.S. airstrikes in Iraq result in civilian death rates 31 times higher than claimed. That's not 31 percent higher... it's 3,100 percent higher. (Based on thorough investigative work by the New York Times.)

The tax bill may pass. (I have hopes that it won't, but they'll keep bringing it back just like the health care bill.)

Six weeks after Trump signed the Russia sanctions bill, he has made no move toward implementing the sanctions, undermining the foundations of constitutional government.

Trump's list of potential court appointments (and in-process appointments) will corrupt the judiciary for decades. From incompetent to deeply ideological, they've been prepped since law school to steer the country into the worst parts of our past. (Remember, though: aside from the incompetents Trump has plucked from nowhere, this little apocalypse was set to happen no matter which Republican got elected to the White House.)

Meanwhile, Clarence Thomas is still on the Supreme Court, and we're all waiting to hear what prominent man will next be outed as a harasser or worse.

Is that enough for one day? I'm not sure. I probably forgot something.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein at the Kohler Arts Center

If you've never been to the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and you can get there by the end of the year, now is the time. The current set of exhibits, in honor of the museum's 50th anniversary, is a broad look at 20th-century outsider artists, particularly environment-builders.

One of the largest exhibits displays a wide range of work by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, whom I don't remember hearing about before, or at least I know I haven't seen before.

The museum presented the first major retrospective of EVB’s work in 1984, the year after he died at age 83. It later “purchased a representative selection of works, its first major art acquisition, and now holds the largest collection of the artist’s oeuvre.” But they haven’t shown much, if any, of it during the 10 years or so I've been visiting once a year.

EVB was a "self-mythologizer," according to the accompanying text. He wanted to be recognized as a great artist, and experimented throughout his life with painting, photography, clay, and drawing. He also created inventions, cures for diseases, and grew plants, especially succulents.

He worked at a florist just out of high school in the late 1920s, then at a commercial bakery though the 1950s. He married at age 33 to Eveline Kalka, whom “he renamed Marie in honor of one of his favorite aunts.” (I have to say I wonder about the power dynamics within any couple where one of them feels he can rename the other one.)

They lived in Milwaukee, usually in financial straits, and — according to the museum's description — “perhaps because of it, their need for fantasy and escape was amplified. For the next forty years, their home was transformed into an astonishing art environment—though there were very few who experienced firsthand the incredible world the two generated."

I'm not including images of the photographs (almost all of Marie/Eveline), and not many of the paintings. I find his three-dimensional work, which started about 50 years into his life, more compelling

First, the bone chairs, which he sometimes called thrones. They were created 1965–70 and are made of chicken bones, paint, metal, adhesive, and varnish. EVB soaked the bones in ammonia, dried them in the stove, then sorted them by type for use. The museum has grouped a dozen-plus of the chairs on a wall:

After the chairs, he built a series of towers, inspired (I heard) by the Watts Towers:

Around the same time as the chairs, EVB began making ceramic crowns in plant form:

The crowns were created 1965–75.

In 1977, EVB began painting images of fantasy architecture:

He used a technique that involved dipping the edges of corrugated cardboard into paint, then printing it onto enameled sheets. “The resulting masses of upright forms display a lacy grid design that emulates building blocks, a pleasing solution for creating the illusion of the complexes of his new architectural age.” Here's a close-up of the texture he created this way:

There's a lot more than this in the EVB exhibit alone, not to mention all of the other artists currently on show in the building. So really — if you can get to Sheboygan, please do!

Here's one last item from the EVB exhibit... not art, but a bit of carving on the wall from his basement:

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Advice from 2014

Feeling lazy, I dipped into my photos over the past several years for a quick blog post, and came up with these two from the same day in March 2014.

They had no association at the time, and yet, have so much to say to each other.

A letter from the Pioneer Press.

Entrance to the Jim Hodges exhibit, then on display.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Green & White and Anti-Black

There have been lots of reminders lately that anti-blackness is a real force in the U.S., 2017. Black men get longer federal sentences for the same crimes than white men, black children are judged by preschool teachers to be misbehaving when acting age-appropriately and thus get suspended or worse, people with black-sounding names and identical resumes don't get interviews while those with white-sounding names do, and so on. All of those facts are from research findings or analysis of federal data.

But here's a local story that's not from research or data: it's about a lawsuit filed against Green & White, a Twin Cities taxicab company. Black drivers are suing the company, claiming it steers its most lucrative work to white drivers.

The cab company has corporate accounts that include longer trips, which pay a more consistent amount of money than waiting for a fare on the street or at the airport. One former Green & White driver, Aaron Shaw II, says the "company's leasing manager told him that corporate accounts were available only to 'American drivers'" — which was then further explained to mean "white drivers."

Many of the black cab drivers in the Twin Cities are African immigrants. And while it's illegal and immoral to have a rule restricting these accounts to "American drivers" in the first place, it's unspeakably vile to decree that only a white driver is "American," when it's quite likely that a non-immigrant black driver has roots that go back a lot farther in this country than the average white driver. (I can't even express that well, it makes me so angry.) It's another version of seeing black people as perpetual outsiders, when in fact their enslaved ancestors were the ones who built much of this country and its prosperity.

Here are some details from the story that highlight how screwed up this is:

In his seven years at Green & White, Shaw said that he made just one trip with Canadian Pacific [railroad] workers, but he said that happened because a white driver was unable to take the assignment and asked him to fill in. He said Green & White asked him to turn his passengers over to another driver about an hour into the trip when managers found out about the swap.

“You could tell when the guys got in the car that I wasn’t supposed to be there,” Shaw said in an interview, noting that all three of the passengers were white.
The railroad work is key, because they use the cabs for long trips "running...employees to worksites in neighboring states" with fares as much as $700. And then there's the Red Cross account:
Red Cross uses Green & White to deliver blood products to hospitals in Minnesota and surrounding states when trained Red Cross volunteers or employees are unavailable...

Green & White drivers said Red Cross uses the company’s services every day, sometimes with multiple deliveries, with fares ranging from $50 to $400. Drivers said they are aware of just one black driver at Green & White who has done work for Red Cross, even though they said most of the company’s drivers are black.

Drivers who complained said they were told they didn’t meet some unstated criteria of the Red Cross.

Red Cross, however, said it did not request specific drivers.
And here's a fact I never knew: Green & White drivers pay the company $500 a week to lease a car, so cutting them out of the more lucrative business has real effects:
Black drivers said they sometimes failed to make enough in a week to cover their lease payments, but they said white drivers were frequently earning as much as $1,000 to $1,500 a week. Many black drivers have left the company in frustration, they said.
This purposeful undermining of black drivers' ability to earn a living is one small part of the undermining of black wealth that has been the American story for centuries.

Friday, November 17, 2017

So What Do You Really Think of the Tax Bill?

I wrote a great post about the Republican tax bill in my head last night, around 3:00 a.m. By the time I got up, though, it had fled, and now has completely evaporated from my synapses.

Even so, here are a few things I know about the tax bill.

It taxes graduate students on their tuition benefit. That means their "incomes" will increase from amounts like $15,000 to $30,000 to amounts like $60,000+, and they'll pay taxes on that with no additional income to cover it. Because... get this... tuition is not income. The new law would also apply to employees of private primary or secondary schools and all higher education institutions if they get a tuition benefit for their dependents. That means instant increases in their "incomes" for the tuition they are not paying for their kids or spouses. (I've heard the argument made that employees of non-education companies have to pay taxes if their employers pay for them to attend college classes, so it's only fair to charge grad students. No. The thing to do in that case is not penalize people in any these circumstances for getting more education.) How many people do you know who (or whose kids) went to college because of a parental benefit like this? I know a lot. One writer in particular I can think of is Ta-Nehisi Coates, who was able to afford Howard University because his dad worked there.

It allows a tax break if you own a private airplane, but kills the current deduction for electric vehicles.

It gets rid of the deduction for student loan interest payments.

It cuts Medicare and Social Security in ways that have barely been mentioned.

It gets rid of the individual mandate for health coverage under the ACA, which will raise health insurance rates on millions and millions of people.

It has no score from the Congressional Budget Office, but appears to increase taxes on lots of people who make under $100,000, but gives big breaks to people who make more than that, and especially people who make a lot more than that.

It extends "personhood" to fetuses and uses the term "unborn" to describe the fetuses, which is not a medical or legal term, but a political one.

It increases the deficit. It's premised on the belief that cutting taxes on corporations and millionaires creates jobs and grows the economy, which we know was not supported by reality when it was tried multiple times in the past. Trickle-down is a con-job.

It removes deductions for state income taxes and property taxes, which is geared to hurting people in blue-states. It also messes with tax incentives for building affordable housing.

It gets rid of our already-not-strong enough estate tax. That gives almost inconceivable bonuses to the families of ultra-wealthy donors who have paid millions to elect members of Congress and the president:

That's some return on investment, hey? Notice that the Trump family isn't listed there, though they could be.

Oh, and the final kicker: Congress has held no hearings on it. The House passed it in the middle of the night, which is always a good sign.

Let's see if the Senate can kill this heap of atrocious ideas and rotten pork.


So far I've already realized I forgot the elimination of the medical deduction exemption, teachers' ability to deduct classroom expenses, and the independent funding of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau... Here's a new Vox explainer on some of the damned details. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017


So, this news about Al Franken.

I'm surprised because it happened so recently (just 11 years ago). If it were a story from his Saturday Night Live days, I wouldn't be. That's my biggest disappointment, honestly. This man was not just a husband, he was the father of a daughter and son. (Now he's also a grandparent.) He was 55 years old!

However, if (and I emphasize the "if") Leeann Tweeden makes the only allegation, is the only woman who comes forward with something, it is nowhere near the league of reprehensibles we've been hearing about lately. Crass and sophomoric (the photo) and beyond unacceptable, especially for a man his age, but since he was not touching her, it is not assault. He didn't distribute the photo, either.

The kiss... well, that seems harder to classify. Clearly, Tweeden had a problem with it. But again, relative to Moore, Weinstein, Trump... it's not in the same order of magnitude, and may even be a misunderstanding.

Investigate it, sure. If more women come forward, yes, Franken should resign (as should all others, including two Minnesota state legislators, one Democrat and one Republican, who have been accused of multiple harassment and/or assault instances).

But for now, Franken deserves more time and due diligence. I knew what he was when I voted for him — there are very few male comedians I've been subjected to over my life who weren't sexist jerks — so I have been pleasantly surprised by his performance for our state since then. In a way, I've been lulled by his steadiness and, quite frankly, lack of show biz as my senator.

Most Minnesota voters agreed with me, upping their support for him between 2008 and 2014 from barely over even to 11% in his favor (from a margin of just 215 votes up to 202,978). We like him. We really, really like him.

Let's see if there are other shoes to drop.


I may live to regret writing this, but I think at this point it's a fair assessment of the situation.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Roy Moore and 1965

Somewhere in the raging screed of horribleness that is Roy Moore's worldview, he recently came up with this:

“By 1962, the United States Supreme Court took prayer out of school,” he said. “Then they started to create new rights in 1965, and now, today, we’ve got a problem.”
The year 1965 is generally being understood by commentators to refer to the Civil Rights Act, which of course makes sense since Moore is clearly a white supremacist.

But historian Kevin Kruse makes the claim that it's more likely Moore that is referring to Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 Supreme Court case where the majority found the state had no compelling interest to keep married couples from purchasing contraceptives.

Kruse tweeted,
It's not a household name for many Americans, but Griswold...has long loomed large for the Religious Right, because it serves as the key legal foundation for Roe v. Wade (1973).

The Griswold case revolved around an ancient Connecticut law that banned the sale of contraceptives. In writing the decision, Justice [William O.] Douglas wanted to strike down the law on the grounds that it violated the right to privacy.

The problem, however, was that strictly speaking, no such right existed in the Constitution. But Douglas said an assumption that there really was a right to privacy could be found throughout the Bill of Rights.

Beyond the strict letter of those amendments, Douglas argued, the Court could see the right to privacy in the "emanations" from those amendments. (The 1st guaranteed freedom of association, the 3rd command of one's home, the 5th protection from self-incrimination, etc.)

Douglas likened the Bill of Rights to an umbrella that cast an even bigger shadow of protections, and located the right to privacy in that shadow as a "penumbral" right.

And importantly, that right to privacy then became a key foundation in later cases regarding sexual activity and, most notably for the Religious Right, the right to abortion as laid out in Roe.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Upholstery Leads to Etymology

I know I refer to a lot in my posts, but have I ever said how much I love that website?

It's a labor of love done by one guy, Douglas Harper, a newspaper copy editor (and double major in history and English, like me). He started multiple websites in the mid-1990s based on his various interests, but etymonline is the one that "grew legs":

Its birth is eccentric and probably unrepeatable. I couldn't do it today; the technology has gotten away from an amateur like me. Some people call it a gem. If it is, it's a pearl: The accidental production of an irritated oyster. Ask me why I did it and I'll give you a solid answer. And tomorrow I'll give you a different one. They're all correct. I tease myself along through the drudgery with a combination of guilt and vanity. If I did this right, I can say at the end of life I bundled up my worst qualities -- obsessiveness, impudence, narcissism -- and made something vaguely useful with them.
He describes the methods he uses the site's content here. The site was recently rebuilt and redesigned to work better on smart phones, which has been helpful most of the time, in my opinion.

Anyway, the word I was looking up today that made me want to mention the site was "upholstery." What a strange word, as is "upholstered." Do they have something to with holsters?

No. It turns out they both derive from "upholsterer":
upholsterer (n.)
"tradesman who finishes or repairs articles of furniture" (1610s), from upholdester (early 15c.; early 14c. as a surname), formed with diminutive (originally fem.) suffix -ster + obsolete Middle English noun upholder "dealer in small goods" (c. 1300), from upholden "to repair, uphold, keep from falling or sinking" (in this case, by stuffing); see uphold (v.).
"Uphold" itself is older:
c. 1200, "support, sustain," from up (adv.) + hold (v.). Similar formation in Old Frisian upholda, Middle Dutch ophouden, German aufhalten.
I would never have connected upholding and upholstering. Or have guessed that upholstery's roots  are more about the furniture and its state of repair as a whole than about the fabric on the surface.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Invisible Bankruptcy of Cities

If you're looking for a short read that will rattle your basic assumptions about how things work in cities on an operational level, check out this from Chuck Marohn over at Strong Towns: the Real Reason Your City Has No Money.

It's about Lafayette, Louisiana, a city of 125,000 people, but the principles apply much more broadly across the U.S. In short, the replacement cost of city-owned infrastructure is twice as large as the private wealth of the entire tax base. And that infrastructure needs to be replaced once a generation or so.

In Lafayette, paying for what the city needs would mean increasing property taxes on a median-value house from $1,500 a year to $9,200 a year, which is never going to happen, of course.

All of the programs and incentives put in place by the federal and state governments to induce higher levels of growth by building more infrastructure has made the city of Lafayette functionally insolvent.... If they operated on accrual accounting — where you account for your long term liabilities — instead of a cash basis, where you don't — they would have been bankrupt decades ago. This is a pattern we see in every city we've examined. It is a byproduct of the American pattern of development we adopted everywhere after World War II.
Psychologically, this predicament happens because of a human phenomenon called "temporal discounting." We value a short-term pleasure and deeply undervalue a future pain. Sounds like... climate change, right?

Our brains are wired to do this. "Modernity removed most physical restraints, government removed the financial, and we did the rest."

What we need are constraints that nudge us in the right direction instead of the wrong one. I look forward to Chuck's next couple of installments.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Natural Experiment

I love natural experiments (and have written about at least one in the past). The most recent one I've heard about took place in Iowa, and was covered on NPR recently.

After a 2008 immigration raid in an Iowa town arrested 10 percent of the population (and herded a lot more people than that into cattle cars for processing, based solely on what they looked like), the number of low-birth-weight babies born to Latina mothers increased significantly.

Before the raid, Latinas had a lower rate of low-birthweight babies than white mothers. Afterward, the rate increased about 25 percent for non-U.S.-born Latinas and 20 percent for U.S.-born Latinas.

Yes, it increased almost as much for the women who were, supposedly, under no threat from the raid:

The NPR story contains a number of other examples of interpersonal microaggressions that people of color experience, some of them similar to Barack Obama's experience of being taken for a waiter. It makes perfect sense that the life-long stress of these experiences would have health effects.

The story is a good, fact-based counter-argument to people like Jonathan Haidt who belittle the very concept of microaggressions.